10 Unmissable Places to Visit in Japan

This page contains affiliate links. Please read our disclosure for more info.

Japan is somewhere I think everyone should visit. From futuristic skyscrapers to tranquil bamboo forests and neon arcades to serene temples, it’s like nowhere else on the planet.

The food is incredible, the people are ultra polite, and it has one of the most efficient public transport systems in the world. We love the combination of ease of travel and glorious bewilderment.

Japan has so much to offer but where should you start? These are our picks for the absolute best places to visit in Japan, perfect for your first or second trip to the country (plus suggestions for the repeat visits that are likely to happen!).

I’ve included our favourite things to do in each place, how long to spend there, and where we stayed. At the end of the post you’ll find a map of all these Japan destinations to start planning your route. 

I recommend mixing a few of the popular cities (most people won’t want to miss Tokyo and Kyoto) with some quieter, more rural places in Japan to see a different side of the country and take a break from the crowds.

Top tip: We recommend buying a Japan Rail Pass in advance as it will save you money and it’s so easy being able to hop on and off trains all over the country. Read our Japan Rail Pass guide for full details.

Contents

This post was originally published in April 2018 and was updated in 2020 after our latest Japan trip.

Top Places to Visit in Japan

1) Kyoto

Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto, one of the best places to visit in Japan

Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto

If you only have time for one Japan destination, make it Kyoto. This is traditional Japan as you imagined it—geisha in brightly coloured kimonos emerging from wooden teahouses, forests of bamboo, temples and shrines in gold and silver and scarlet, raked gravel Zen gardens, intricate feasts served on lacquered plates, graceful tea ceremonies, and markets full of intriguing but unidentifiable ingredients.

The concrete high-rises of downtown Kyoto can be disappointing, so head out towards the mountains to the surrounding neighbourhoods where you’ll find narrow stone streets, old wooden houses, monks in flowing robes, and the sounds of chanting and gongs from the many temples and shrines.

Gion is the place to spot geisha, Higashiyama has many beautiful temples to explore, and Arashiyama, up in the western hills, is one of the most traditional neighbourhoods and home to bamboo groves, quirky temples, and monkeys.

Kyoto is one of the top Japan tourist spots, so try to visit the popular temples early in the morning as they do get crowded.

In Kyoto don’t miss:

  • Wandering through the red torii gates of Fushimi Inari shrine
  • Learning to cook traditional Japanese cuisine with Emi
  • Getting your fortune from a vending machine at Kinkaku-ji (the Golden Temple)
  • Taking the train to the village of Kibune and walking across the valley to the beautiful Kurama-dera temple
  • Retreating from the busy streets of Gion to the magical Yasaka-jinja at night
  • Strolling the Philosopher’s Path
  • Experiencing Zen Buddhist cuisine at the Tenryu-ji temple
  • Getting off the beaten track at the quirky Otagi Nenbutsuji temple
  • Exploring these magical Kyoto cherry blossom spots if you visit in late-March or early-April

How Long to Spend: 3 nights minimum but 5 nights would be better. We’ve spent two months in Kyoto and still haven’t done everything! A longer stay also allows you to avoid the crowds more easily (you have more early mornings available) and take some of these wonderful day trips from Kyoto.

Read: Our post on the many amazing things to do in Kyoto (and how to avoid the crowds) and our guide to Kyoto’s temples and shrines and the best vegetarian restaurants in Kyoto.
Where to stay in Kyoto: On our latest trip we stayed in Miyagawacho, a geisha district close to Gion but much quieter. We often saw geisha and could walk to many of the city’s main attractions. Our apartment is no longer available but this three-bedroom townhouse was above us. Also in the area are the modern Hotel The Celestine and friendly guesthouse Tanaka-ya. Airbnb is a great option—search for apartments in Gion here. If you’d prefer a traditional ryokan, Gion Hatanaka is highly rated. Find more accommodation in Kyoto here.

Back to Contents

2) Tokyo

Sensoji Temple in Tokyo with SkyTree in the background, a top Japan destination

The modern and traditional juxtaposed at Sensoji temple in Tokyo

If Kyoto is the heart of traditional Japan, Tokyo is its ultramodern counterpart. It’s here you’ll find the skyscrapers, noisy arcades, busy pedestrian crossings, crazy youth fashions, and many many incredibly delicious restaurants. If all you do in Tokyo is eat, you’ll have an amazing time—even as vegetarians we ate so well.

Tokyo is also home to some of the weirdest activities we’ve ever done. From themed cafes (cats, owls, maids, robots, goats—you name it, Tokyo has it) to sensory-overload shows and arcades to cos-play go-karting.

On my first trip to Tokyo I was overwhelmed by the sprawling city and couldn’t help comparing it unfavourably to Kyoto. On repeat visits I’ve grown to love the city (the food certainly helped) and while it isn’t as attractive as Kyoto, there is so much to do that you won’t want to skip it.

In Tokyo don’t miss:

  • Driving a go-kart on the real roads while dressed as your favourite character. Insanity but so much fun!
  • Eating in a tiny restaurant on atmospheric Memory Lane
  • Gazing at the night skyline from the free Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building in Shinjuku
  • Walking across the famous Shibuya Crossing
  • Gawping at the crazy fashions of Takeshita Street in Harajuku
  • Visiting the brilliant DisneySea (possibly our favourite Disney park in the world!) or neighbouring Tokyo Disneyland (or both if you have two days spare)
  • Getting sensory overload at the bizarre Robot Restaurant show
  • Immersing yourself in the colourful digital arts museum, TeamLab Borderless

How Long to Spend: 3 – 5 nights or longer if you want to take day trips (such as to Nikko, Kawaguchiko or Hakone (for Mt Fuji), and Kamakura). We’ve spend over a month here on various trips and still find new things to do. If time is limited, I would allocate more time to Kyoto than Tokyo. 

Where to stay in Tokyo: Read why I think Shinjuku is the best area to stay in Tokyo. We usually rent an Airbnb apartment in Shinjuku which is great if you are on a budget. Or splurge on the luxurious Hotel Park Hyatt where the film Lost in Translation was filmed. Search for hotels in Tokyo here.

Back to Contents

3) Takayama

Takayama, one of the best stops on our Japan 2 week itinerary

Takayama is an utterly gorgeous small town on the edge of the Japan Alps and one of the best less-visited places to go in Japan. I loved wandering the historic centre full of traditional wooden houses, colourful shrines, neatly shaped trees, and bright red bridges over the river.

In Takayama don’t miss:

  • Wandering the old town in the early morning before the crowds arrive
  • Buying delicious fruit from the morning markets
  • Snacking on mitarashi-dango (rice balls grilled in soy) from a street stall
  • Seeing the extravagant floats at the Festival Floats Exhibition Hall
  • Visiting the Hida Folk Village to see traditional thatched houses
  • Cycling through the countryside with Satoyama Experience

How Long to Spend: 2-3 nights. We had 2 nights and wished we’d had longer because there’s lots to do in the surrounding countryside. With a longer stay you could take day trips to the traditional thatched roof houses of Shirakawa-go and go hiking in Kamikochi in the Japan Alps.

Where to stay in Takayama: We stayed at Super Hotel Hida Takayama, a good mid-range business hotel near the train station. If you are on a budget K’s House Takayama is an excellent hostel. For a traditional ryokan experience Oyado Koto No Yume gets excellent reviews. Find more hotels in Takayama here.
Top tip: See our Japan 2 week itinerary for more details on combining these top places in Japan for an amazing trip.

Back to Contents

4) Hakone

Mount Fuji from Lake Ashi in Hakone, one of the top places in Japan

Mount Fuji from Lake Ashi in Hakone

Mount Fuji is on most people’s lists of places to visit in Japan, but this must-see Japan landmark can be rather elusive and is often hidden by clouds.

There are a number of places you can see the mountain from (Kawaguchiko is another great option—see below), but Hakone is easy to reach from Tokyo and there are lots of other things to do in the area in case you are out of luck with a sighting.

Despite visiting on a cloudy, drizzly day, we were lucky that Mount Fuji emerged from the clouds above Lake Ashi and it was magical!

Hakone is also fun to visit because you can do a loop of the sights on different modes of transport—train, bus, pirate boat (yes, really!), and cable car.

In Hakone don’t miss:

  • Buying a Hakone Free Pass so you can hop on and off all the transport options on the Hakone Loop.
  • Seeing Mount Fuji from the lake or cable car
  • Eating a black egg cooked in the hot sulphur springs at volcanic Owakudani (not really, these look gross, but the Japanese go crazy for them)
  • Soaking in an onsen
  • Staying in a tatami room in a ryokan (traditional inn) and enjoying an elaborate dinner
  • Wandering the outdoor sculpture gallery at Hakone Open Air Museum

How Long to Spend: You could visit on a day trip from Tokyo but I recommend 1-2 nights to experience a ryokan and onsen. We had one night and did part of the loop in the afternoon we arrived and the rest in the morning. While it was just enough for the main sights, we wished we’d had longer to enjoy our ryokan.

Where to stay in Hakone: Hotel Musashiya was the best place we stayed in Japan. It’s a modern ryokan on the shores of Lake Ashi in Moto Hakone. We loved our comfortable tatami room with lake views, the indoor and outdoor onsen baths (also with lake views), and the delicious vegetarian feast we were served in our room. It was wonderfully relaxing. Find more hotels in Hakone here.

Back to Contents

5) Kanazawa

Kazuemachi geisha area in Kanazawa, one of the best cities to visit in Japan

Kazuemachi geisha area in Kanazawa

Kanazawa is one of the best cities to visit in Japan, but few foreign tourists make it here. As Kyoto grows in popularity, consider turning to Kanazawa instead for a quieter place to experience geisha districts with preserved wooden buildings.

There is also one of the most beautiful gardens in the country, a stunning castle, and many art museums to explore.

In Kanazawa don’t miss:

  • Wandering Kenroku-en Garden, one of the top three gardens in Japan
  • Exploring the wooden teahouses of the geisha districts Higashi Chaya and the quieter Kazuemachi and Nishi Chaya
  • Experiencing a traditional tea ceremony at the exquisite Gyokusen-en Gardens

How Long to Spend: 2 nights. 

Where to stay in Kanazawa: We stayed in Smile Hotel Kanazawa, a standard business hotel that had the cheapest ensuite room I could find in the centre and was walkable to all the sights. Find more hotels in Kanazawa here.

Back to Contents

6) Nikko

Toshogu Shrine in Nikko, one of the most beautiful places in Japan

Toshogu Shrine in Nikko

Nikko is a temple town and UNESCO world heritage site in the mountains a few hours north of Tokyo and makes a cool retreat from the city. The area is famous for its vibrant autumn colours.

The temples and shrines with their vermillion gates and moss-covered stone lanterns are scattered on the wooded hillside.

The main attraction is Toshogu Shrine, a stunning complex with more than a dozen lavishly decorated red and gold buildings amongst huge, ancient cedar trees. The crowds can be overwhelming, so afterwards head to one of the quieter shrines.

In Nikko don’t miss:

  • Visiting Toshogu Shrine early to avoid the crowds
  • Playing games at atmospheric Futarasan-jinja
  • Exploring Taiyuinbyo
  • Hiking up the mountain to the peaceful Takino shrine
  • Photographing the bright red Shinkyo bridge
  • Munching on dango (grilled rice balls on a stick) from a street stall
  • Eating sushi at Komekichi Kozushi

How Long to Spend: You could visit Nikko as a day trip from Tokyo, but it’s worth spending a night or two to explore one of the most beautiful places in Japan including hiking trails, lakes, waterfalls, and hot springs. 

We had one night and wished we’d had two so that we could have visited Toshogu Shrine early on the second day. 

Where to stay in Nikko: We stayed at Nikko Park Lodge Tobu Station, a good budget option conveniently located close to the train stations. For more character, you could stay in a traditional ryokan with views and outdoor onsen baths. Some highly-rated ryokans include Nikko Hoshino Yado, Okunoin Hotel Tokugawa, and Hotel Shikisai. Find more hotels in Nikko here.

Back to Contents

7) Koya-San

Okunoin cemetery in Koya-san, a top Japan destination

Okunoin cemetery in Koya-san

Koya-san (Mount Koya) is one of the most interesting places in Japan to experience the traditional side of the country. This secluded and sacred temple town is located in the forest-covered mountains of Kansai and is one of the best places to get a taste of life as a monk by staying in a shukubo or temple lodging.

After wandering around the otherworldly Okunoin forest cemetery, we checked into our simple tatami room at the temple, soaked in the communal onsen bath, and enjoyed a delicious shojin ryori vegetarian Buddhist meal. In the morning we were up early for the chanting and meditation ceremony with the monks.

A temple stay at Koya-san is a fascinating experience and well worth the detour from Osaka or Kyoto.

How Long to Spend: 1 night. 

Where to stay in Koya-san: We stayed in Haryo-in, the cheapest temple accommodation, but it’s quite basic and I’d recommend paying more to stay at one of the more traditional temples like 1000-year-old Eko-in which gets superb reviews. Find more temple lodgings here

Back to Contents

8) Tsumago

Tsumago village in the Kiso Valley, a must see in Japan

Tsumago is a picture-perfect traditional mountain village in the Kiso Valley. It is one of the best-preserved post towns in Japan and you feel like you’ve stepped back in time on the traffic-less streets of beautifully restored wooden inns.

During the Edo period 300 years ago, Tsumago was a stop on the Nakasendo Way between Kyoto and Edo (now Tokyo). You can hike part of this trail to the village of Magome in about two to three hours. Unfortunately, a typhoon prevented us doing this, but it’s supposed to be a scenic and easy walk.

How Long to Spend: 1-2 nights. If you can arrive early enough on the first day to hike the Nakasendo Way in the afternoon, then 1 night is enough as it’s a tiny village. 

Where to stay in Tsumago: In keeping with the Edo-era atmosphere, stay in a traditional ryokan or minshuku (a simpler family-run inn). We stayed at the basic Minshuku Shimosagaya. Neighbouring Magome has more choice including the budget Chaya Hotel or historic Tajimaya.

Back to Contents

9) Nara

Todaiji temple in Nara, a must do in Japan

Nara was Japan’s first permanent capital and is full of historic treasures including many UNESCO world heritage sites. It’s one of the top Japan attractions and makes a rewarding day trip from Kyoto to visit the temples and wild deer in Nara Park.

The Daibutsu-den (Hall of the Great Buddha) at Todaiji is the main sight—it’s the largest wooden building in the world and nothing prepares you for the immense sight. Inside is the 15-metre tall gold and bronze statue of Buddha that dates back to 751.

How Long to Spend: Most people visit as a day trip from Kyoto. You can see the highlights in half a day but a full day is better.

Back to Contents

10) Hiroshima

Atomic Bomb Dome at Hiroshima Peace Memorial, Japan

Atomic Bomb Dome at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial

Come to pay your respects to the victims of the atomic bombing at Hiroshima’s moving Peace Memorial Museum and Park and stay to explore the modern city that was almost entirely rebuilt after World War II.

Hiroshima is usually combined with a visit to the famous floating torii gate at Itsukushima shrine on nearby Miyajima Island (as of June 2019 the gate is under renovation for at least a year).

You’ll also want to try the delicious local speciality okonomiyaki, a thick pancake of batter, vegetables and noodles.

How Long to Spend: 1-2 nights is enough to visit the Peace Memorial Museum and Miyajima Island or you could visit as a long day trip from Kyoto, Osaka or Okayama.

Where to stay in Hiroshima: We stayed in a private room at K’s House Hostel Hiroshima, a well-run hostel with an immaculate shared kitchen and helpful staff. For more luxury, the Sheraton Grand Hiroshima and the Righa Royal Hotel have comfortable rooms in central locations. Find more hotels in Hiroshima here.

Back to Contents

More Amazing Japan Destinations

There are so many incredible places to explore in Japan. Here are some more destinations that we absolutely loved (and it was hard to leave them off the top 10 list!).

If any of these appeal to you more than the ones above (or fit into your itinerary better), then they will be just as enjoyable. 

Back to Contents

Osaka

Busy streets and giant crab of Dotonburi in Osaka at night, a popular day trip from Kyoto

Osaka is a Japan must-see for many visitors. We love the neon craziness of Dotonburi, the amazing food (for vegetarians too), friendly people, affordable prices, and the scary rides and brilliant Harry Potter World at Universal Studios Japan

But, if you have limited time on your first trip to Japan, I would probably say choose Osaka or Tokyo as they are both sprawling modern cities. 

If you are flying into or out of Kansai airport then it makes sense to spend a night or two in Osaka. You could also visit as a day trip from Kyoto. 

In Osaka, we loved this Airbnb apartment in Shinsaibashi. The location is ideal—quiet but close to lots of cool shops and restaurants and in walking distance of Dotonburi. It’s also way more spacious that anywhere we’ve stayed in Tokyo. 

Back to Contents

Kinosaki Onsen

Visitor to Kinosaki Onsen in kimono at night by the cherry blossom lined canal

Simon clip-clopping by the canal in Kinosaki Onsen at night

On our first Japan trip we were terrified of getting naked in onsens, but on our latest visit we were brave enough to spend a few nights in an onsen town. 

Onsen hopping dressed in a kimono in a traditional hot spring resort is a classic Japanese experience. Kinosaki Onsen is a great place to experience it. It’s only a few hours from Kyoto or Osaka and the canal-side town is very pretty, especially in cherry blossom season.

We stayed in a traditional tatami mat room at Morizuya Ryokan. It’s ideal for first-timers as they speak English and are very friendly, walking you through everything you need to know. The epic meals served in your room are delicious too.

Read our Kinosaki Onsen guide for all the details including onsen etiquette and how to get over your fears. 

Back to Contents

Naoshima Island

The yellow pumpkin sculpture on Naoshima Art Island in Japan

Contemporary art fans will love Naoshima, a sleepy island in the Seto Inland Sea known for its art galleries and outdoor sculptures. 

We visited on a day trip from Okayama and had a wonderful day cycling around and combining art with beautiful sea views and tiny fishing villages.

Read our Naoshima Island guide for a recommended one day itinerary.

Back to Contents

Okayama

Cherry blossoms at Handayama Botanical Garden, one of the best things to do in Okayama Japan

If you are interested in getting off-the-beaten-track, Okayama is a great place to visit in Japan. 

This modern city is home to one of the best gardens in the country and is especially beautiful in sakura season when you can enjoy the cherry blossoms without the crowds of Kyoto or Tokyo. 

As it’s on a bullet train line, it’s a convenient and affordable base for exploring the area including the historic Kurashiki, Naoshima Island, Himeji Castle, and Hiroshima. We also did a fantastic bike trip on the Kibiji Bike Trail through rice fields to untouristy temples. 

Our post on the best things to do in Okayama has all our tips.

Back to Contents

Himeji Castle

Hineji Castle in cherry blossom season

Himeji Castle is one of the few original castles in Japan (most were destroyed at some point and rebuilt). It’s well worth a visit, especially in cherry blossom season. 

You can easily visit in half a day from Osaka, Kyoto, Okayama (as we did) or on the way to Hiroshima. 

Back to Contents

Kawaguchiko

Mount Fuji at Lake Kawaguchiko at sunrise from the north shore

For the best views of Mount Fuji, head to Lake Kawaguchiko. It’s especially lovely in cherry blossom or autumn leaf seasons. 

You can enjoy the views by walking or cycling around the lake or taking a trip on a cable car or boat (we hired a panda pedal boat!).

The lake is also home to one of my favourite museums and tea houses in Japan. See my Lake Kawaguchiko guide for more tips. 

Back to Contents

And Just a Few More Ideas

These Japan tourist attractions and off-the-beaten-path gems are on our list for our next trip:

  • Kamakura – Beaches, Buddhas, hikes and vegetarian-friendly food. You could visit as a day trip from Tokyo.
  • The Izu Peninsula – Rugged coastline, mountains, and hot springs not far from Tokyo.
  • Shirakawa-go – A village of traditional grass-roofed houses in a scenic setting. You could fit in a visit between Takayama and Kanazawa.
  • Takaragawa Onsen – A scenic onsen resort a few hours from Tokyo. It has a large mixed-gender onsen, so unusually you don’t have to be naked.
  • Hokkaido – The northernmost island of Japan known for its natural beauty and outdoor activities.
  • Okinawa – A chain of tropical islands in the far south of Japan.

Best Places to Visit in Japan Map

Back to Contents

Japan Travel Tips

Read our detailed Japan guides for everything you need to know to plan a brilliant trip.

I hope this post has given you some ideas of where to go in Japan. Wherever you decide to visit you are sure to have an amazing trip. 

What are your favourite places in Japan? Leave a comment and let us know so we can add them to our Japan bucket list. 

If you enjoyed this post, pin it!

Back to Contents

  • Share:

Enter your email to sign up for our monthly newsletter with exclusive travel tips and updates.

32 Comments (17 pingbacks)

  1. Hi, I’m thinking of planning a trip for me and my daughter to visit Japan but haven’t any ideas of where to start. I was thinking a two week trip but maybe more time would be needed for the things we would like to do. If staying for longer than two weeks is there visas needed ect. I haven’t a clue where to start I’ve looked at your guide which is very helpful. Would I be better of speaking to a travel agent for help and advice ??? Many thanks Paul Miller.

    Reply ↓

  2. This page has been very helpful! I am planning a two week trip to Japan next year and this has helped break down each city and what to not miss. Thanks again!

    Reply ↓

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *. Your email address will not be published. By clicking the Submit button, you give consent for us to store your information for the purposes of displaying your comment and you accept the terms of our Privacy Policy.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.